The child bombers of Sri  Lanka

BBC World: South Asia
Tuesday, July 28, 1998

 Many Sri Lankan children become Tamil Tiger fighters each year. The United Nations Children Fund,   which works to protect young people's  rights and welfare, is dedicating this  year to saving children from conflict.  Unicef estimates there are around 500,000 children fighting in various wars throughout the world, particularly Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Uganda.

Tamil School Children

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers, who are fighting for a separate homeland, have been employing children in their  guerrilla forces for seven years. The BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka says that, in some areas held by the Tamil Tigers,  up to 50% of pupils have left  schools to join the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

One young Tamil recruit said she knew how to lay landmines and operate  machine guns and pistols by  the age of 13.  "The leaders came to our school and said we had to join the army in order to rescue our country," she said.
Joined tamil tigers at the age of 13
"After three months I was sent to my first operation. It was an attack on an army checkpoint and I was equipped with grenades."  The risk of being killed or injured is not the only threat to the  lives of the Tamil child bombers.

 Suicide capsules

All new recruits are given cyanide capsules with instructions to swallow them if captured to avoid giving military secrets to  their enemies. Sri Lanka's foreign affairs  minister Lakshman Kadirgama said: " It reminds  me very much of what  happened to the German youth under Hitler towards the end of  the of the Second World War.  Hitler was recruiting  teenagers, as young as 13 and 14."

But a recruitment officer for the Tamil Tigers insisted that no pressure was being put upon youngsters to join the LTTE. "It is not the Tigers who are recruiting young people, it is the government who are driving the children to the Tigers," he  said. "A young person loses a parent - they feel real anger and  they vent this anger by joining the Tigers."

Monday, June 22, 1998
BBC World: South Asia
             Sri Lanka's children of war

 The children of northern Sri Lanka live in the middle of fighting

The problems of children caught up in wars is being discussed at an international conference in London. The  BBC Colombo correspondent Susannah Price examines the plight of young people whose lives have been  traumatised by the 15-year conflict in Sri Lanka:

A group of children perform an intricate dance in a small theatre in the northern Sri Lankan town of Jaffna. The  appreciative audience sit in the open air and applaud their  performance.  The members of the Centre for Performing Arts in Jaffna are justly  proud of their performance - considering they live in one of the areas of Sri Lanka which has seen the most fighting in the past decade and much of which is still  in ruins.  "All the children in Jaffna are psychologically affected," said  VJ Constantine, General Secretary of the Centre. "This is therapy and entertainment at the same time. It helps  to stop the children being so traumatised."

 War generation

 The 15 years of war in Sri Lanka has meant that a whole  generation has grown up knowing only the intractable conflict between the government and Tamil Tiger guerrillas. Hundreds of thousands of children who live in the north and east of the island have been directly affected by the violence their relatives or friends have been killed or injured for example. More than a quarter of mine victims are children.

Sivasan, 16, who is a student taking his 'O' Level exams stood on a mine in the compound next to his home in the  northern Jaffna peninsula. "Of course my life is not the same", he said pointing to his artificial leg made of aluminium with a rubber foot.  "I can carry on studying, but I can't play sport or lead a normal life like before."

Displaced families

The war has lead to huge numbers of families being  displaced all round the north and east. Many left Jaffna in 1995 because of  fears of fighting when the army was  advancing and travelled southwards to live in the rural area known as the Wanni, which is controlled by the Tamil Tigers.  In the area there are reports of shortages of teachers and equipment in schools and the health services lacking basic supplies.

 "The teachers in that area face may problems, even to get  water it was a struggle," said one woman who had just left the area. "The children suffer a great deal, they lost their elders and their neighbours and everything."

 It is a story repeated in the refugee camps in the central town of Vavuniya and among the Muslim refugees who were  forced to leave Jaffna by the Tigers and in countless other  areas of the island.

Child soldiers

The recent visit to Sri Lanka by the United Nations representative on children in armed conflict, Olara Otunnu, highlighted the issue of child soldiers. Aid agencies have accused the Tamil Tigers of recruiting child soldiers and the government claims that they are  using them in combat.  However in May the Tigers gave Mr Otunnu an undertaking  not to use children below the age of 18 in combat and not to  recruit children under 17 years.  Although the move was widely welcomed it is not clear how this will be monitored. At the same time the army moved to deny reports that it was planning to recruit young people in schools. The military is extremely short of manpower but has reiterated it will not  lower its age limit of 18 years.

 Peace would come too late

The head of the presidential task force on child protection  said they had interviewed about 20 child soldiers who had  been rehabilitated - but would not specify from which group. "Most joined voluntarily because they thought it was the  thing to do. They also thought if they remained there was the  possible threat of the other side arresting them - so they wanted to have a gun and have protection."  He said there were few facilities for rehabilitation which  could store up problems for the future.  "Even when there is peace we are going to have a large proportion of the population who are traumatised," he said.  "Many of the worst affected are the children. Even if there is  peace, it will be too late for them."

Wednesday, January 28, 1998
 BBC World  Special Report
              Sri Lanka - how ethnic  tensions grew
 The Tamil Tigers were declared illegal by the Sri Lankan government on January 26

 Sri Lanka's ethnic groups

 Sri Lanka is a diverse nation. Sinhalese make up 74% of   the population and are concentrated in the more densely  populated south-west. Ceylon Tamils, whose South Indian ancestors have lived on the island for centuries, form around 12% of the population and live in the north and the east. Although Sinhalese are the clear majority, they are a  majority with a minority complex, fearing the influence of the  huge Tamil population across the Palk Straits in the  southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The different groups  tend to lead highly-segregated lives and live within their own communities, apart from in the capital, Colombo.  Indian Tamils, a distinct ethnic group, represent about 6% of  the population. They were brought to India in the nineteenth  century by the British, to work in the tea and rubber  plantations. They tend to live in south-central Sri Lanka. The  population of Indian Tamils has been declining as many are repatriated to India. Other minorities include Veddas, Muslims (both Moors and  Malays), and Burghers who are descendants of European colonial settlers.  Most of the Sinhalese community are Buddhist, most  Tamils are Hindu. Most of the Muslims practice Sunni Islam.

Historical origins

 Sri Lanka claims the world's second oldest continuous  written history, a history which chronicles the hostility between the Sinhalese ('people of the lion'), who probably  came to Sri Lanka from India around the 6th century BC and  became Buddhists when the religion arrived around three  hundred years later, and the Tamils who came from  Southern India a few centuries later. Chronicles and religious mythology have played a key role  in developing communal identity and animosity on the  multi-ethnic island. Tension began as far back as 237 BC  but the stories of that period have been coloured by the  religious nationalism and revivalism of the twentieth century.  The Sinhalese see the unity of the island as intertwined with  the Buddhist faith and oppose any attempt to divide it or give  the Tamil areas greater autonomy. In the early sixteenth century, the first Portuguese traders  began to arrive and the Dutch supplanted the Portuguese,  who were then in turn supplanted by the British, although Dutch influence remains in some areas, including the law.  Britain took full control of the island in 1815 and established  a plantation economy. In 1931, the British granted Ceylon self-rule and a universal franchise. On February 4, 1948  Ceylon became independent.

 Tamil grievances

 The British colonial policy of divide and rule sowed the seeds of renewed tensions between the Sinhalese and  Tamil communities after Independence. Tamils, although well-educated, were given a disproportionate number of top  jobs in the civil service by the British. Once the Sinhalese  majority held sway, its politicians sought to redress the balance with populist but discriminatory policies against Tamils.  In 1956, the victory of SWRD Bandaranaike on a platform of   Sinhalese nationalism led to him declaring Sinhala to be  the country's official language among other anti-Tamil  measures. Communal tension and violence increased from  1956 onwards as Tamils became increasingly frustrated.  By the mid-70s, Tamils were calling for a separate state in  the north and east of the country. In the 1977 elections, the  separatist TULF won all the seats in Tamil areas, while  groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)  began to use violence for the same ends. In 1983, the country erupted into full scale communal  violence after 13 soldiers were killed by Tamils. Hundreds  of Tamils were killed in Colombo and 100,000 fled to south  India. Members of the TULF were thrown out of parliament and the security forces moved into the north and east of the country to try to drive out militant groups.

As the situation deteriorated, with human rights violations on both sides, Prime Minister Jayawardene sought to involve India through an agreement with its Prime Minister,  Rajiv Gandhi. India has a population of around 55 million  Tamils, mainly in the state of Tamil Nadu and some Sri  Lankans felt that the LTTE was gaining considerable  support from them. Negotiations began in 1985 and the Sri Lankan government made a number of concessions to the  Tamils with some devolution of power and official status for  the Tamil language.

 In 1987 the Sri Lankan government went on a major military  offensive in the north of the island but India raised  objections to the methods used and warned that it would  intervene on humanitarian grounds if it thought the Tamils  were being starved out. Relations between the two  countries deteriorated rapidly as Indian planes dropped  supplies into Jaffna. In July 1987, India and Sri Lanka  signed an accord, which the LTTE at first went along with, to  try to settle the problem through devolution and greater  autonomy for the Tamils while an Indian Peace Keeping  Force (IPKF) would disarm the rebels.

Concessions of autonomy to the Tamils led to a backlash  among the Sinhalese population, especially around proposals to merge the northern and eastern parts of the  island into a Tamil-dominated province. Sinhalese  nationalism began to grow and was fanned by  Bandaranaike's SLFP. It found violent expression in the JVP, who fought against the accord with India, undermining the government's position. The JVP assassinated a number of  political figures and tried to intimidate voters during the 1988 election.

 Meanwhile, in the North, the accord was repudiated by the  LTTE after the death of 15 of its fighters in custody. The Indians were then drawn into fighting with the Tamil Tigers  with whom they were ill-equipped to deal.  In 1989, peace talks resumed between the LTTE and  Premadasa which led to Premadasa calling for the  withdrawal of Indian troops. India withdrew its forces from  Sri Lanka in May 1990. On May 21, 1991 Rajiv Gandhi was  assassinated in India during an election campaign trip. The  Tigers were held responsible for the killing.

Attempts have continued intermittently for the last few years  to try to resolve the conflict but all have proved unsuccessful.  In January 1995, the government and the Tigers agreed a truce, but this only lasted for a short period as the Tigers saw the proposals as inadequate and fighting resumed. In October of that year, the government launched an all-out  offensive against the Tamil Tigers, in which important   territory was taken including, in April 1996, the Jaffna  peninsula. But the Tigers, who have considerable resources, show no  signs of giving up and continue to attack military bases and  use suicide bombers. In April 1997, then-British Foreign  Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, was involved in trying to broker  an agreement between the government and opposition  parties to try to end the conflict. The rebels also  assassinated two members of Sri Lanka's parliament in  July 1997 in the eastern port of Trincomalee. Overall, an estimated 50,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

 Recent Events

On October 15 1997, Tamil Tiger guerrillas exploded a truck  bomb and fought street battles with security forces in the  heart of Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo. 18 people were killed  and 105 wounded. Officials said the attack was aimed at the  new 39-storey World Trade Center (WTC) building which  also houses the Colombo Stock Exchange, the Central  Bank and several foreign companies. The attack  represented a serious blow to the Sri Lankan economy  which was just beginning to pick up and attract foreign   investment.

 The previous week, the U.S. State Department added the  Tigers to its list of terrorist organisations, outlawing their  activities and fund raising in the United States. The Tigers  said the U.S. action would only escalate the war. The Sri  Lankan government has been pursing a successful  programme of trying to marginalise the Tigers internationally and emphasise their role as terrorists.  President Chandrika Kumaratunga condemned the attack  and said it would not deter her from efforts to resolve the  civil war. She has proposed constitutional changes that  would give more autonomy to all of Sri Lanka's provinces,  including those dominated by Tamils. But her offer falls  short of the independence Tamil militants have called for. Sinhalese extremists have also criticised the plan as giving  away too much to the Tamils who have said that they will  continue their fight for self-determination. Most of the fighting  has come in a fierce offensive by the government to capture  a strategic highway. The offensive began in May 1997 and is  continuing to cause major casualties on both sides.

On January 26 this year, the Sri Lankan government  declared the LTTE an outlawed organisation with  immediate effect. The move came after the bombing of a  16th century Buddhist shrine regarded as one of the most sacred in the Buddhist world. The attack killed sixteen  people. The banning of the group scuppers any chance of  negotiating an end to the violence in the short-term.  The US banned the group in 1997, while India banned the  LTTE after it was implicated in the 1991 assassination of  Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The move will cause  some complications for Britain as the Tamil Tigers have a  headquarters in London and use it to raise funds -- funds  which its critics claim are used for terrorist attacks.

February 4 1998 saw Sri Lanka's 50th anniversary of  Independence celebrations, with Britain's Prince Charles among the invited dignitaries.